Choir: The Double Edged Sword

choirChoir is a wonderful singing format that I got to enjoy in my formative years.  From fourth grade through my second year of college I was involved in multiple choirs non-stop including a cappella (when there is no accompanist or conductor during performance).  The reason choir is so common in Christian worship is because the blend of many voices does create a heavenly sound, and studies have even shown there is a lot of physiological and psychological benefit of singing in a group.  However, with all the boons that a musician can garner from choir, there are equally consequential handicaps.

First, let us start with the good.  When you sing in choir, you are learning more valuable skills as a musician than any other musical ensemble like “Band” or Orchestra.  You learn what music schools call “aural skills” which are the abilities to hear something and replicate it with your voice while multi-tasking with sight reading, harmonizing, and following the dynamics of the conductor.  The one-up choir has on the other two ensembles above, while everything else is at par, is the combination of aural skills and voice.  At the college level and as a musician overall, instrumentalists realize how important their voice is when it factors in, but have to struggle to catch up because they never really had to use it.  They have the same ear training, or sometimes even better, but the solfege/sight-singing they will have to do after high school will drive them nuts.  Choir musicians also get exposed to all the dynamic and rhythmic skills as instrumentalists, and maybe only come up short on music theory side.  However, choir musicians often get to cover a much larger spectrum of different composer’s works, not even to mention the linguistic/phonetic skills they develop from singing songs from all over the world!

While choir singing is a fantastic platform for musicianship, which, unfortunately, I am witnessing  take on a disappearing act among recent generations (whose schools are no longer funding music, and whose exposure to complex music peaks with “Drake”), choir teaches a lot of BAD singing habits.  I mean, choir nurtures really detrimental singing habits.  At the core of choir is the idea of “blending” your voice with the others on the stage.  We are all built differently, our voices are literally designed to stand out–no two voices will sound the same.  When we blend, we take on bad habits and think they are appropriate habits because we use them in choir every day.  Blending causes inappropriate cord closure, and the manipulation of your voice to match whoever makes themselves the leader of your section.  When you see a good impersonator, they have developed the ability to manipulate the muscles in their larynx to sound like someone who has an entirely different shaped head and throat, and a different quality of elasticity.  Blending is also detrimental emotionally, especially with confidence, because you are learning to hold back and hide versus stand out and be yourself.  For those who want to be a singer, the bad habits ingrained from the blending of conventional choir is a paralyzing megalith to overcome to be a successful solo vocalist.  To explain the many terrible habits learned in choir that effects a vocalist for life is too technical and dense for the purposes of this article, but it all comes from “blending.”  If you are someone who is going to be in a choir, spend as much or more time singing solo and training with a balanced bridging/Mix specialist.

The blending problem is particular to European choir format, whereas black gospel choirs are the polar opposite–completely healthy for the voice.  They blend their uniqueness together as a group.  In a choir that sanctifies the individual voice, you can literally hear each and every singer if you focus in on them while getting the overall thrill of many voices singing together.  Hallelujah, it is possible to have both!  However it is a cultural difference, and I am not sure such an experience is available if you were not brought up in a voice-valorizing environment where nearly everyone sings and is encouraged by the uniqueness of their individual vocal expression.

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